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‘This could be bad’: CDC says people should brace for coronavirus spreading in US

Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear sprayed anti-septic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea.
Disinfection professionals wearing protective gear sprayed anti-septic solution against the coronavirus (COVID-19) at a traditional market in Seoul, South Korea.Chung Sung-Jun/Getty

A top official with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that people should begin preparing for coronavirus spreading in the United States — and the possibility of disruptions to daily life as society grapples with the disease.

“In general, we are asking the American public to work with us to prepare in the expectation that this could be bad,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“As more and more countries experience community spread, successful containment at our borders becomes harder and harder,” she said in a teleconference with reporters. “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country. It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

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She said it’s possible that the outbreak might not be severe, but it’s “better to be overprepared than underprepared. ... I don’t think, in general, that preparedness will ever go to waste.”

Messonnier said that recent developments have “certainly raised our level of concern and raised our level of expectation that we are going to have community spread here."

“We’re asking everyone to start planning for this,” she said.

The urgent tone, from both leaders of the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, came in response to a rapid surge in cases in new locations outside mainland China in the past several days, including new cases without a known source of exposure in Hong Kong, Iran, Italy, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

US Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said officials warned senators during a closed-door briefing that there was a “very strong chance of an extremely serious outbreak of the coronavirus here in the United States.”

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The coronavirus has caused outbreaks around the world. But so far, there have been only 14 cases of the virus diagnosed in the United States. All of them were in people who had traveled recently to China or their close contacts. Another 39 people have been infected in other parts of the world and traveled back to the United States and quarantined, STAT reported.

Messonnier pointed to a government study, Community Mitigation Guidelines to Prevent Pandemic Influenza — United States, 2017, as the “framework for our response strategy,” saying it provided a guide to what can be done at the individual, community, and environmental level during a pandemic when there’s no vaccine or proven medical treatment.

She said the “most important tools" against the virus would be the “nonpharmaceutical interventions,” or NPIs, outlined in the study. The NPIs used would vary by community depending on local conditions.

“Based on what is known now we would implement these NPI measures in a very aggressive, proactive way, as we have been doing with our containment efforts,” she said.

She outlined a variety of measures suggested in the study. The measures ranged from simply asking people to wash their hands, to cover their coughs, and to sanitize surfaces, which is recommended during any flu season — to having children attend teleschool, workers telecommute, placing exposed household members in voluntary home quarantine, and canceling public gatherings.

The measures used would vary by community depending on local conditions. “Local communities will need to make decisions about what NPIs to implement and when,” she said.

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“I understand this whole situation may seem overwhelming and that disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Messonnier said, “but these are things people need to start thinking about now.”

She added that she had talked to her own children about the issue Tuesday morning, telling them, “while I didn’t think they were at risk right now, we as a family need to be preparing for significant disruption of our lives.”

She suggested that parents ask their local schools what their plan is for dismissals or closures and whether officials have any plans to conduct teleschool; that parents ponder what they would do for child care if schools or day care centers are closed; that people ask whether they could telecommute; and that people find out if their health care providers offer a telemedicine option.

She said CDC was “working on multiple fronts, including specific measures to prepare communities to respond to local transmission of the virus.”

“I want to recognize that people are concerned about this situation. I would say rightfully so,” she said. “Now is the time for businesses, hospitals, communities, schools, and everyday people to begin preparing as well.”

CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said at a separate press conference later Tuesday that a global pandemic was likely, though she said the actions the United States takes at home will depend on the severity.

“The images we’ve been seeing from China, from Hubei province, are quite different from what we’d expect in a U.S. context,” Schuchat said. In China, cities have been locked down and houses searched door to door, with people forcibly quarantined. “Dr. Messonnier’s comments really to were to frame what might happen in the future. It’s very important to say that our efforts at containment have worked.”

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The message from public health officials, which came on the second day of a steep drop in the stock market, contrasted with that of the White House. On Tuesday, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow tried to assuage concerns over the coronavirus and its impact on the U.S. economy.

“We have contained this. I won’t say [it’s] airtight, but it’s pretty close to airtight,” Kudlow told CNBC’s Kelly Evans on “The Exchange.” He added that, while the outbreak is a “human tragedy,” it will likely not be an “economic tragedy.”

At a news briefing in India, Republican President Donald Trump said, “You may ask about the coronavirus, which is very well under control in our country.”

“We have very few people with it and the people that have it are, in all cases, I have not heard anything other — the people are getting better, they’re all getting better.”

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.


Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.